Cordelia Scaife May’s Colcom Foundation Supports Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s Allegheny Plateau Woodland

The late Mellon heiress Cordelia Scaife May established Colcom Foundation as a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting causes that make a meaningful difference in conservation and sustainability. The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is among the most deserving beneficiaries of the Foundation’s efforts.

The 460-acre expanse in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania boasts flourishing gardens, winding trails, and a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life.

But the wonder of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is that it is built on abandoned coal mines. 

Beginning in the early 1920s, the land bore witness to the ravages of “room and pillar” mining, leaving behind cavernous voids and unstable terrain. Later, in the 1940s, strip mining further ravaged the landscape, leaving behind steep highwalls and barren spoil piles.

Despite the condition of the land, the visionaries behind the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden saw an opportunity for transformation. Recognizing the potential to reclaim this scarred land, they embarked on a monumental journey of restoration.

Reforestation Project

Central to the garden’s restoration efforts was the ambitious reforestation project. From 2015 to 2020, thousands of native tree seedlings were planted in the area, breathing life into once-barren soil. Guided by the principles of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, a diverse array of native species was carefully selected to restore ecological balance and provide vital habitat for wildlife.

The inclusion of blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings, generously donated by The American Chestnut Foundation, symbolizes both the garden’s commitment to preserving heritage species and its embrace of cutting-edge conservation practices.

Hazard Remediation

The path to ecological restoration was fraught with challenges, chief among them the specter of acid mine drainage. The legacy of coal mining cast a shadow over the landscape, as toxic runoff poisoned waterways and threatened aquatic life.

To combat this menace, innovative water treatment systems were deployed, including a drainable limestone bed that neutralized acidic water and restored life to once-barren ponds. The dangerous remnants of mining activities, such as highwalls and subsidence, also posed ongoing threats to both visitors and ecosystems alike. 

Through meticulous grading and vegetation efforts, once-dangerous cliffs were transformed into gentle slopes, while abandoned mine openings were sealed to ensure the safety of all who tread upon this reclaimed land.

The Garden’s Commitment

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is more than a mere oasis of greenery; it is a demonstration of the power of collective action and dedication to conservation. Through pest management practices and the preservation of native landscapes, the garden has become a model of sustainable land management, fostering biodiversity while minimizing human impact.

The garden features three woodland areas – The Allegheny Plateau Woodland area, The Asian Woodland and the European Woodland. 

Cordelia Scaife May’s continued impact on the Pittsburgh landscape

As part of its broader commitment to sustainability, in 2022, Cordelia Scaife May’s Colcom Foundation provided $150,000 in funding to support the Allegheny Plateau Habitat Restoration project. 

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s Allegheny Plateau Woodland offers visitors a captivating glimpse into the native flora of the region. The woodland area highlights the diverse array of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that are endemic to the Allegheny Plateau region.

The Allegheny Plateau, a rugged, heavily forested landscape featuring trees from southwestern Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio, western West Virginia, and northeastern Kentucky, provides an opportunity for guests to learn about and appreciate the local ecology that makes up the Allegheny Plateau. 

One of the standout features of the Allegheny Plateau Woodland is the impressive “Giant Bird Nest” sculpture. This human-sized, towering structure was designed to mimic the nests constructed by birds native to the region and invites visitors to step inside and experience the woodland from a new perspective, allowing them to get a sense of what it would be like to sit in the nest of a local bird species. The scale of the Giant Bird Nest provides a uniquely immersive way for guests to connect with the natural world around them.

Among the botanical highlights of this area are several notable tree species. The eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a harbinger of spring. The majestic tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as the yellow poplar, has uniquely shaped leaves and striking flowers commanding attention. These and other plants indigenous to the region serve as a living classroom, educating visitors about the local ecology. This dedication to highlighting the natural wonders of the Allegheny Plateau underscores the garden’s broader mission of promoting conservation, sustainability, and a deeper appreciation for the natural world.

Through the Allegheny Plateau project, Colcom Foundation’s funding will help prioritize the needs of at-risk species, maintain healthy forests, and provide vital ecosystem services to local communities – all core tenets of Cordelia Scaife May’s environmental advocacy.

Before her passing in 2005, Cordelia Scaife May entrusted Colcom Foundation as stewards of her philanthropic vision and commitment to environmental conservation and sustainability. 

Though she is no longer with us, May’s legacy lives on through the Foundation’s ongoing support for crucial initiatives like the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden and continues to inspire meaningful change across the region. 

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